4 Common, Underrated Reasons for Insomnia—and 6 Solutions From an Expert

BY Health 1+1 TIMEMarch 25, 2022 PRINT

Getting a good night’s rest is not only important for starting your day refreshed, but serves an important biological process for restoring the body.

Dr. Chun-Hsu Chen, a doctor of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University, points out that if cells are damaged during the day, the body will repair the damage at night during sleep, especially in sound sleep.

If you don’t sleep well, don’t get enough sleep, or even sleep at the wrong time, the body’s repair process will go wrong, which will accelerate aging. More seriously, it may also cause cells to become cancerous.

“Sleep is a basic anti-aging and anti-cancer necessity,” he stressed.

The problem is that many people do not get enough sleep and do not sleep well. There are many factors that can affect the quality and quantity of sleep and create different sleep problems.

1) Problem: Adrenal Hormones vs. Melatonin

Due to the pressures and cycles of modern life, many people stay up late, and get poor quality sleep, adding to a vicious cycle. When people are under pressure, the adrenal glands secrete the hormones of epinephrine (better known as adrenaline) and cortisol (commonly referred to as the “stress hormone”).

Generally, the body does secrete adrenal gland hormones during the day, so that people can work and respond to emergencies. But these are destructive hormones in the sense that they also shut down the gastrointestinal systems, hamper the immune system, and even destroy body tissue.

At night, the body secretes melatonin, which is a restorative hormone that will work as we sleep.

Dr. Chen said that these two hormones are like stilt-walkers: If people often stay up late at night, the body continues to secrete excessive adrenal gland, which will make the stilt-walker lose its balance.

It reduces the time for the body to recover, and in the long run will also cause premature aging, and illness.

High blood pressure, high blood lipids, high blood sugar, and high uric acid are likely to appear at early ages, causing sudden deaths. Death from overwork is the most typical case.

1) Solution: Catching the ‘Golden Hours’

The four hours between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. are the most important hours for sleep, sometimes called the “golden four hours.” Ideally, one can not only sleep during these hours but be soundly asleep. Contrarily, if you go to bed at 3 a.m. and wake at 11 a.m, even after a full eight hours of sleep you can still feel tired.

Dr. Chen went so far as to say that if you miss these golden four hours, “that sleep is the same as no sleep.” He stressed that it was no use to try to catch up on sleep.

It is best if someone can sleep for eight hours a night, including sleeping through those four hours. But if you’re too busy and cannot manage eight hours, it’s better to just sleep from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., and continue to work after getting up at 4 a.m. if you must, Dr. Chen said. But this is a limited solution, he cautioned, and in the long term you still suffer from lack of sleep, and will be sleepy during the daytime.

Dr. Chen recommends meditation to many people. The unique state meditation puts our brains in can help mitigate the effects of lack of sleep. He suggested practicing qigong, a type of physical and mental exercise that often includes meditation. These practices adjust the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerves to keep the body in a healthy sleep.

2) Problem: Full Stomachs and Excessive Starch

It’s generally ill-advised to go to bed feeling too hungry or too full.

The stomach and intestines need a period of time to digest food after a meal, and the older you are in age the longer this period is. For people older than 30, Dr. Chen recommends finishing dinner three hours before bedtime; for those over 40, it should be four hours; and for those over 50, it should be five hours. For those 60 and older, Dr. Chen recommends finishing dinner by 6 p.m. when possible.

Once you’re over 40, the more you eat at night or dine too late, the worse the quality of = your sleep will be, Dr. Chen said, resulting in light sleeping, fitful nights, and excessive dreaming. A former colleague of his, for instance, had a busy period where he was finishing work at 9 p.m. and finishing dinner at 10:30 p.m., and during that period he had poor sleep, was groggy for much of the daytime hours, and put on weight in the middle.

Dr. Chen explained that if there is still food in the gastrointestinal digestion system, even during your sleep the body is in working condition. But normally the body should stop working when one is asleep. The glucose and energy produced after digestion will then be sent to the brain, causing excessive dreaming.

It’s worse if your dinner consists of many starches—it will be converted into glucose.

When your brain is supplied with so much glucose during sleep, “the brain will be very busy,” Dr. Chen said.

2) Solution: Limiting Intake

In addition to adjusting the time you eat dinner, adjust how much you eat, and what you eat.

Dr. Chen says that though we shouldn’t go to bed too full, we also shouldn’t go to bed feeling too hungry. Adjust the portion of your meal to your level of hunger.

As for starches: eat less for dinner, or better yet, don’t eat starches at dinnertime at all.

3) Problem: Fluctuating Blood Sugar Levels and Lack of Stomach Acid

Eating too much of starches and sugars at night can not only cause nightmares of excessive dreaming, but it’ll also cause blood sugar level fluctuations.

Dr. Chen pointed out that blood sugar levels dropping and rising can occur at any time, but if it happens in the middle of the night, it’s a major cause of people waking up between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m.

Glucose fluctuation is a spike in blood sugar after sugar intake, and a large amount of insulin is secreted, followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar, which is too low. During the day, if this happens people get hungry and panicked in mood and want to eat (therefore replenishing glucose).

But at night, the body then secretes liver sugar, which is converted into glucose, which will raise your blood sugar level again. This blood sugar level fluctuation means that the body’s control mechanism for blood sugar levels become unstable.

This situation is caused by eating too much starch and net carbohydrates (carbs minus fiber).

Another way digestion can wreak havoc on sound sleep is if you don’t have enough stomach acid.

As we age, our body functions can also gradually decrease. And as the digestive function becomes weaker with age, this means less stomach acid secretion.

The symptoms of insufficient stomach acid are different during night and day, Dr. Chen said. During the day, you would experience indigestion and bloating after meals, and the body then feels weak and lax. At night, this results in waking up automatically in the middle of the night.

3) Solution: Avoid These Foods for Dinner

Dr. Chen says rather than taking medication for leveling out your blood sugar, try instead to avoid refined starch, sugar drinks, and sugary desserts during dinner. The more of these things you eat, the more pronounced your blood sugar level fluctuations will be.

If you have low stomach acid, however, it may be good to take stomach acid supplements. If you take these, Dr. Chen said, you’ll want to take them before bed, and sit for 10 minutes to let the supplements do their work. Afterwards, people tend to feel the desire to sleep, and sleep soundly.

4) Problem: A Brain Full of Distractions

The busyness of the day, or worries and anxieties, can often keep people up in bed, unable to fall asleep. Stress tends to be a recurring factor in sleeplessness, so Dr. Chen gave a few practical recommendations.

4) Solutions: Lists, Supplements, and Temperature

Make a list: If you have a lot of thoughts about things you need to do keeping you up, Dr. Chen recommended writing them down as a to-do list. Putting pen to paper and then setting the list aside, you can put thinking about these items on pause, knowing that you will revisit them later.

Calcium and magnesium supplements: This can relax the nerves and help people with mild sleep disturbances sleep better and deeper when they take calcium and magnesium tablets before bed. However, the effect of calcium and magnesium tablets should not be expected to be the same as that of sleeping pills.

“I personally oppose the use of sleeping pills,” Dr. Chen said, stressing that sleeping pills become higher in dosage and more varied the more they are used.

Use a far-infrared electric heater to warm your feet: Place the heater about 1 foot from the bed and adjust the heater to a low heat. Lie on the bed, and cover yourself with the quilt, exposing the bottoms of the feet to the heater.

When people think of too many things in their mind before going to sleep, sympathetic nerves become too hyperactive, making it difficult to fall asleep, Dr. Chen explained. The warm temperature will make the parasympathetic nerves rise, so that people feel relaxed. Usually people begin to yawn in about five minutes after their feet become warm, he said.

Health 1+1
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